Claims of sexual abuse at south-west parishes fell on deaf ears, Commission finds

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has released a scathing critique of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Ballarat’s response to abuse claims.

A number of these claims occurred in parishes throughout the south-west, including Warrnambool and Mortlake.

The report, which comes one day after documentation about the Melbourne Archdiocese was released, said “commissioners heard that there was a tendency by clergy in the Diocese to treat complaints or allegations of child sexual abuse dismissively and in favour of the priest who was the subject of the allegation”. 

Ronald Mulkearns

Ronald Mulkearns

Catastrophic failure of leadership led to suffering of children, Commission finds

“That harm could have been avoided if the Church had acted in the interests of children rather than in its own interests,” the report states.

“It was only when there was a possibility that the sexual abuse of children by a priest would become widely known that any action was taken.

“Invariably, that action was to remove the priest from the community for a short period and then place him in another, more distant parish. Restrictions were not placed on priests and supervision was not given.”

Ridsdale appointed to Mortlake, despite admissions at former parish

Gerald Ridsdale.

Gerald Ridsdale.

Although he knew of the admissions Ridsdale made at Inglewood parish, after Ridsdale completed his study year, Bishop Mulkearns appointed Ridsdale as parish priest at Mortlake in January 1981. 

“We find that it is inconceivable that this appointment did not invite discussion,” the Commission found.

“It is clear that Bishop Mulkearns should not have appointed Ridsdale parish priest of Mortlake, given his knowledge of the priest’s history.” 

During his time at Mortlake parish, Ridsdale sexually abused a large number of children, including Mr David Ridsdale, BPS, BPT, BPW, BPU, BPX, BPR and Mr Paul Levey. 

Many years later, Ridsdale himself described his behaviour at Mortlake as ‘out of control’. 

Bishop Mulkearns and other senior priests in the Diocese received numerous reports of Ridsdale’s sexual offending against children. 

The Church parties acknowledged that in 1981 and 1982 Bishop Mulkearns either received or learned of numerous reports or complaints about Ridsdale at Mortlake. 

They also acknowledged that, at least by August 1982, reports or allegations about Ridsdale in Mortlake had been made to Monsignor Fiscalini, Sister McGrath, Father Finnigan and Father Nolan. 

Allegations emerge shortly after Ridsdale’s arrival

Allegations emerged at Mortlake not long after Ridsdale was appointed to Mortlake, probably in early 1981.

Mrs BAI’s son, BPS, came home from the presbytery and told her Ridsdale had grabbed him, but he would not elaborate. 

Mrs BAI and her husband decided to approach Bishop Mulkearns. 

They telephoned the bishop’s office the following day and spoke to Father Finnigan, who was the bishop’s secretary at that time. 

They asked him if they needed to be concerned about the welfare of their children in relation to Ridsdale. 

Mrs BAI’s evidence was that Father Finnigan told them there had been no reports of improper behaviour by Ridsdale and there was no need for concern. 

Bishop Finnigan had no memory of the telephone call from Mrs BAI, and he did not deny it occurred. 

“We accept Mrs BAI’s evidence,” the report states.

Mortlake residents were ‘disturbed’ by Ridsdale’s behaviour

Father Finnigan told  investigators that, when Ridsdale was in Mortlake, three or four people came to him and were ‘disturbed by (Ridsdale’s) behaviour’. 

Father Finnigan said he ‘confronted’ Ridsdale. 

Bishop Finnigan told us he had nothing specific to confront Ridsdale with, and he passed on to Ridsdale the fact these people were concerned and unhappy. 

The timeline is not clear, and it is possible that Mrs BAI’s complaint came before Bishop Finnigan received the complaints of the three or four people in Mortlake. 

If that was the case, Father Finnigan’s response to Mrs BAI would not have been dishonest. 

Mr and Mrs BAI were entitled to expect that, as bishop’s secretary, Father Finnigan either would know of any previous complaints or, if he did not, would take steps to find out and answer their query honestly. 

Bishop Finnigan may have had the thought that the parents would follow up; if he did, it was not reasonably held. 

His response to Mr and Mrs BAI, as they described it to us, was in our view clearly intended to reassure them and to discourage further action. 

Lack of action regarding allegations was ‘reckless’

Regardless of whether he passed the information on to Bishop Mulkearns, he clearly did not satisfy himself that there was no cause for concern before offering that reassurance to Mr and Mrs BAI. 

This was reckless as to the safety of Mr and Mrs BAI’s son. 

Father Finnigan’s failure to report Mrs BAI’s complaint to Bishop Mulkearns was unsatisfactory and unacceptable. 

Mrs BAI gave evidence that later the same day, around 5pm, Ridsdale visited their house unannounced. 

He said, ‘there must be some misunderstanding’ in relation to the previous night at the presbytery. 

Mrs BAI’s son, BPS, replied, ‘I think we’ll agree to disagree, Father Gerry’, and left the room. 

Mrs BAI said that after this event they had little contact with Ridsdale outside of the Church. 

It is probable that Bishop Finnigan spoke to Ridsdale following the telephone call from the BAIs. 

In his private hearing, Bishop Finnigan accepted that the concern of the people who came to see him was that Ridsdale was behaving inappropriately with their children. 

Bishop Finnigan’s evidence was that he ‘was blind and stupid and naïve’ not to realise that parents coming to complain about the behaviour of a priest with children were concerned about what that priest might do to the children. 

“We reject the submission that Father Finnigan did not recognise what lay behind the concern that Ridsdale was ‘over-friendly’ with children,” the Commission found. 

“We do not accept Bishop Finnigan’s evidence that he did not recognise the nature of the complaints.

“Given the questions he asked of the parents, and the need to ‘confront’ Ridsdale, we are satisfied that he understood the complaints to be serious matters concerning an improper relationship that Ridsdale was having with the children.” 

Mrs BPF had two sons, who stayed overnight in the presbytery with Ridsdale in November 1981. 

Afterwards, she sensed something was wrong and asked one of her sons if Ridsdale had touched him. 

The boy hung his head and would not make eye contact. The same day, Mrs BPF and her husband drove to the neighbouring Terang parish, where Monsignor Fiscalini was the parish priest. 

At the time, Monsignor Fiscalini was the vicar general for the Diocese. 

She said to him, ‘we’ve got a problem in Mortlake’. 

He said, ‘I will deal with it’, and dismissed them without asking any questions. 

Not long after this confrontation, Mrs BPF’s son came home with a letter from Ridsdale apologising, although he did not admit to anything. 

Mrs BPF destroyed the letter. 

Monsignor Fiscalini reported the allegation of ‘sexual molestation’ to Bishop Mulkearns. 

Ridsdale could not recall either Bishop Mulkearns or Monsignor Fiscalini telling him about a complaint received by Monsignor Fiscalini. 

However, to have prompted Ridsdale’s letter of apology to Mrs BPF’s son, one of them probably did. 

In November 1981, Monsignor Fiscalini and Bishop Mulkearns knew of a complaint that Ridsdale had sexually molested a boy in Mortlake. 

Despite this, Ridsdale remained in the parish for another nine months, until September 1982. 

“This was wrong, and it permitted Ridsdale to continue to access boys at Mortlake parish,” the Commission found.

Ridsdale invited 12-year-old boy to live with him

Mr Levey was 12-years-old when he first met Ridsdale on a camping trip to White Cliffs. 

Ridsdale sexually abused Mr Levey at this camp. 

In March 1980, Mr Levey’s parents separated. 

One day his father rang his mother and said Ridsdale had offered to take him to live in the presbytery and Mr Levey would attend the Catholic Regional College. 

At around Easter 1982, when he was 14-years-old, Mr Levey went to live in the Mortlake presbytery with Ridsdale. 

He remained living there until about October 1982. 

While Mr Levey had his own bedroom, he told us he always slept in Ridsdale’s bedroom. 

Mr Levey told the Royal Commission he was sexually abused ‘all the time, just about every day’ while he lived with Ridsdale. 

He told us that it was common knowledge in Mortlake that he lived at the presbytery. 

He said on one occasion Bishop Mulkearns visited the presbytery while he was there. 

“We accept Mr Levey’s evidence,” the report states.

Ridsdale pleaded guilty in the early 1990s to a number of charges relating to Mr Levey. 

Mrs Beverley Levey told us that, not long after Paul was moved to live with Ridsdale, she telephoned Bishop Mulkearns and told him she wanted Paul taken out of the presbytery. 

Bishop Mulkearns told her there was nothing he could do, as the arrangement had Paul’s father’s approval. 

Mrs Levey had at least two similar conversations with Bishop Mulkearns, but each time she was ignored. 

We are satisfied that, by about April 1982, Bishop Mulkearns knew that Mr Levey was living with Ridsdale in the presbytery at Mortlake. 

He knew that the boy’s mother was concerned about the situation and sought his assistance, but he ignored her. 

By this time, Bishop Mulkearns knew of Ridsdale’s admission of offending against boys. 

“It is inconceivable that it would not have occurred to him that Ridsdale should not have had a boy living with him and that the boy was, at least, at risk of sexual abuse by Ridsdale,” the report states. 

“Bishop Mulkearns’ response to Mr Levey living with Ridsdale in the Mortlake presbytery demonstrated a total absence of concern for the welfare of that boy. 

“Bishop Mulkearns deliberately left Mr Levey in danger.” 

The Church parties properly conceded the possibility that Ridsdale was abusing Mr Levey should have occurred to Bishop Mulkearns and, given the knowledge he already had about Ridsdale by this time, he should have insisted that the boy be removed from the presbytery immediately. 

“This was an extraordinary and inexcusable failure by Bishop Mulkearns, and his failure to act subjected Mr Levey to ongoing sexual abuse by Ridsdale,” the Commission found. 

“Bishop Mulkearns’ conduct was appalling.” 

Father Lawrence O’Toole also knew about living arrangement

Father O’Toole was also aware in 1982 that a boy was living in the presbytery at Mortlake with Ridsdale. 

Although Father O’Toole said he ‘naïvely’ thought perhaps Ridsdale was trying to be a father figure to the child, he nevertheless thought the situation was unusual and strange. 

Despite this, he did not do anything with this knowledge. 

“Father O’Toole should have spoken to the bishop and told him the situation was unusual and strange,” the Commission found.

About 18 months after she first spoke to Father Finnigan about Ridsdale, Mrs BAI’s sons again disclosed to her that Ridsdale had touched them. 

Mrs BAI also met with Sister McGrath and told her Ridsdale had been ‘molesting half the boys in the school’. 

Sister McGrath was horrified and immediately told Sister Patricia Vagg, the Parish Pastoral Associate at St Colman’s. 

Sister Vagg rang Bishop Mulkearns about it. 

She also went to see Ridsdale and told him what people were saying. 

On 12 August 1982, Mrs BAI, Mrs BPF and their husbands travelled to the bishop’s office. 

“We are satisfied that in August 1992 Bishop Mulkearns received reports from Mrs BAI, Mrs BPF and Sister Vagg that Ridsdale had sexually abused multiple boys in Mortlake parish,” the Commission found. 

“He responded dismissively to these reports. 

“This was grossly inadequate. 

“His response to Mrs BPF that he could not take the word of a child over that of a priest was particularly wrong in light of his knowledge of Ridsdale’s admission to him of offending against children. 

“Bishop Mulkearns failed in his duty to the children about whom he received reports. 

“His failure allowed Ridsdale to continue to offend.” 

Monsignor Henry Nolan was appointed vicar general of the Diocese in July 1982. 

He travelled to Mortlake to speak with Ridsdale. 

Ridsdale said Monsignor Nolan told him there were rumours, and people were going to the bishop. 

Monsignor Nolan then met with the Sisters at the convent, saying he had spoken to Ridsdale about the matter, he could not stay in Mortlake and he would be moving. 

Mr BPE was the president of the school council at St Colman’s in Mortlake in the early 1980s and father of three boys at the school. 

When asked, two of his sons disclosed to him sexual abuse and attempted sexual abuse by Ridsdale. 

Mr BPE spoke with Monsignor Nolan twice. 

In 1993, when interviewed, Monsignor Nolan gave a different account of his involvement in dealing with the Mortlake allegations. 

He said that in 1982 or 1983 he ‘just happened’ to visit Mortlake. 

He said the nuns ‘never said explicitly what was happening’, and he ‘never knew exactly at any stage then who was involved or what Ridsdale was supposed to have done’. 

“We reject that account,” the Commission found.

“We are satisfied that in about mid-1982 Monsignor Nolan came to Mortlake to speak with Ridsdale about the allegations. 

“We are also satisfied that, when he met with Ridsdale, Monsignor Nolan became aware of Mr Levey living in the presbytery and had him moved to short-term care with a local family.”

Rumours begin to circulate

Between 1980 and around May 1982, Father Brian McDermott was a priest at Camperdown in the early 1980s.

Father McDermott told us in about 1981 or early 1982 he became aware of rumours that some parish priests around Mortlake met to discuss Ridsdale’s activities in Mortlake. 

He presumed it was sexual activity. 

He did not know what happened at the meeting. 

A Mortlake parishioner told him about it. 

He said that the locals of Mortlake were very concerned about what was happening and that it was a wider Catholic community concern.

Bishop Mulkearns met with Ridsdale in Terang on 15 August 1982. 

According to Bishop Mulkearns, Ridsdale said, ‘If these complaints are made then it is better that I get out’. 

Mrs BAI said that, within weeks of her meeting with the bishop, Ridsdale announced during mass that he was being transferred. 

Ridsdale’s removal from Mortlake parish was discussed at the College of Consultors meeting on 14 September 1982. 

Bishop Mulkearns presided at the meeting. 

The Bishop advised that it had become necessary for Fr. Gerald Ridsdale to move from the Parish of Mortlake. 

Negotiations are under way to have him work with the Catholic Enquiry Centre in Sydney. 

It is clear from the minutes that the moving of Ridsdale was out of the ordinary and that there was some urgency to his being moved.

 It is also clear from the minutes that one or more events had caused that to become necessary. 

There is no doubt why Bishop Mulkearns wanted him out of the Diocese. 

“We are satisfied that he wanted to remove him from the Diocese and preferably from access to children to avoid further complaints and public scrutiny,” the Commission found. 

“It had the effect of protecting Ridsdale.” 

Father Eric Bryant said the consultors were told ‘there was a problem with homosexuality in the Diocese’ and the bishop then ‘referred to Ridsdale and what he’d done’. 

Father Bryant’s testimony on this point was clear and straightforward, and it is not contradicted by the other witnesses who were present at the meeting. 

“We are satisfied Bishop Mulkearns gave reasons for it being necessary to move Ridsdale,” the report states. 

“We are satisfied that he referred to homosexuality at the meeting in the context of giving reasons for Ridsdale’s move. 

“We are satisfied that Bishop Mulkearns’ overwhelming concern was to protect his Diocese and the Church from further scandal. 

“We are satisfied that Bishop Mulkearns told the consultors that it was necessary to move Ridsdale from the Diocese and from parish work because of complaints that he had sexually abused children. 

“A contrary position is not tenable.”

Bishop sends a letter to The Standard about Ridsdale

In 1994, Bishop Mulkearns wrote to the Warrnambool Standard, ‘Ridsdale was removed from the Parish of Mortlake as soon as possible after complaints were made against him’. 

“This was not the true position; it was dishonest or, at best, misleading,” the report states.

Father Denis Dennehy replaced Ridsdale as parish priest at Mortlake. 

Within a short time of arriving at Mortlake, Father Dennehy learned from a number of sources that Ridsdale was alleged to have sexually abused a large number of children in the parish. 

Father Dennehy is recorded as saying that every male child between the ages of 10 and 16 years who was at the school in Mortlake was molested by Ridsdale. 

On at least two occasions, Father Dennehy discussed the situation in Mortlake with Bishop Mulkearns. 

Bishop Mulkearns was aware that Father Dennehy had made counselling available, ‘having seen that there was some lasting effect’ of Ridsdale’s sexual abuse of children in the parish. 

Bishop Mulkearns instructed Sister McGrath and Sister Vagg to ‘keep the matter very quiet’. 

Sister McGrath asked Bishop Mulkearns whether a public meeting could be held. 

He said there was to be no meeting. 

Bishop Mulkearns told BPE that it would not be an appropriate at that time to let the community know that the Church was sorry the sexual abuse had taken place. 

In October 1989, Bishop Mulkearns wrote to Ms Ann Ryan, a former schoolteacher at Mortlake, that ‘it is difficult to reach out to specific people when one hears only vague rumours of a very general kind’. 

Bishop Mulkearns’ response to the people of Mortlake was completely inadequate, the Commission found. 

“We are satisfied that his priority was to protect the reputation of the Church and to avoid scandal, rather than responding to the pastoral needs of the children Ridsdale had sexually abused and the wider community.” 

From April 1993, the Catholic Church insurer began investigating Ridsdale’s sexual abuse of children and the knowledge of that abuse within the Diocese. 

In 1993, 1994 and 1995, Bishop Mulkearns gave descriptions of what he knew about events in Mortlake. 

“We are satisfied that Bishop Mulkearns made false statements in interviews with CCI in order to limit his responsibility for his handling of Ridsdale,” the report states.

Ridsdale moves to Warrnambool

After two years at Mildura parish, Gerald Ridsdale held a brief appointment as assistant priest at Swan Hill.

There Ridsdale sexually abused a number children in relation to whom he was subsequently convicted.

In January 1970, Ridsdale was appointed assistant priest at Warrnambool, where allegations about his conduct emerged.

In 1971, Monsignor Fiscalini was the parish priest at Warrnambool and Bishop Mulkearns was the new bishop of the Diocese.

Ridsdale was still an assistant priest at Warrnambool, as was Father Paul Bongiorno.

They lived together in the presbytery.

Father Bongiorno was the chaplain of Christian Brothers College Warrnambool until 1972.

In 1972, Ridsdale was replaced by Father Tom Brophy.

BPL (pseudonym) gave evidence that he was sexually abused by Ridsdale when he was an altar server in Warrnambool from 1970 until 1971.

He stated that he told Father Bongiorno about his sexual abuse at a camp at Crossley.

Father Bongiorno left the priesthood shortly after the camp.

Mr Bongiorno denied the conversation with BPL.

“On the material available to us, we are unable to resolve the differing accounts of BPL and Mr Bongiorno,” the report states.

BPL also gave evidence of two separate reports he made to Monsignor Fiscalini about Ridsdale.

He said he spoke to Monsignor Fiscalini later in 1971 and told him what Ridsdale had done to him.

Monsignor Fiscalini told him that the church was dealing with it and he was not to talk to anyone about it.

Monsignor Fiscalini is deceased.

However, in a 1993 interview with CCI, he said there were no incidents or complaints about Ridsdale’s behaviour with children while he was with him at Warrnambool.

“We accept evidence that BPL spoke to a priest,” the report states.

“However, we cannot be satisfied that it was Monsignor Fiscalini.” 

Victim’s pleas ignored, Commission told

BWA was an altar boy and student at Christian Brothers College Warrnambool.

He gave evidence that he complained to Father Brophy in 1972 that Ridsdale had sexually abused him.

Father Brophy assured him he would put a stop to it and that he and Monsignor Fiscalini would go to Bishop Mulkearns in Ballarat.

Father Brophy never raised it with BWA again.

Father Brophy died in 1974.

“We are satisfied that BWA complained to Father Brophy in 1972 that Ridsdale had sexually abused him,” the report states. 

“There is no evidence as to what, if anything, Father Brophy did with that information, including whether he informed Monsignor Fiscalini or Bishop Mulkearns.” 

BWA also gave evidence that sometime after 1989 he contacted Father Brian Finnigan in Ballarat and told him he wanted to talk to someone about forgiveness.

Father Finnigan put him in touch with clinical psychologist Father Torpy.

BWA said he continued to have conversations with Father Finnigan over the years.

On one occasion Father Finnigan told BWA that, within days of his initial disclosure to Father Brophy, Father Brophy went to Ballarat and told Bishop Mulkearns.

Bishop Finnigan told us he had no recollection of saying to BWA that Father Brophy had gone to Bishop Mulkearns.

He said that Bishop Mulkearns never discussed the issue with him.

“We accept BWA’s evidence,” the report states. 

“Bishop Finnigan did not deny, in 1993 or in his evidence to us, that BWA had spoken to him. However, the evidence is insufficient for us to conclude that Father Brophy did inform Bishop Mulkearns about BWA’s complaint in 1972.”

Ridsdale on the move again

After two years at Ballarat East parish, Ridsdale was moved in 1974 to Apollo Bay parish, in the far south of the Diocese. 

He was appointed parish priest and he lived alone in the presbytery without an assistant priest. Ridsdale was at Apollo Bay for only a year. 

He requested a transfer out of the parish when it came to his attention that there was gossip in the community about his conduct. 

In early 1975, after requesting the transfer from Apollo Bay after 12 months there, Ridsdale was appointed parish priest at Inglewood parish. 

The town of Inglewood is in the far east of the Diocese near Bendigo.

Ridsdale described himself as being ‘out of control’ during his time at Inglewood. 

He had a pool table and acknowledged it was ‘the trap’ for young boys. 

He did not have an assistant priest and lived alone in the presbytery. 

One day after mass a woman told Ridsdale that there was talk around town that he had been interfering with the boys and the police were making inquiries. 

According to Ridsdale, he panicked, packed up his things and left Inglewood late in the evening. 

The next day, he went to see Bishop Mulkearns. 

Bishop Mulkearns met with Ridsdale and Mr Mooney, a police officer from Bendigo CIB, in separate meetings on the same day in mid-January 1976.

According to Bishop Mulkearns, Ridsdale came to him before Mr Mooney did and warned him that a policeman was coming to see him. 

Not surprisingly, there was gossip in the Inglewood community about the allegations against Ridsdale. 

“We are satisfied that in late 1975 and early 1976 there was talk around the Catholic congregation and community in Inglewood that Ridsdale had been interfering with boys and that the police were making enquiries,” the report states.

“We are also satisfied that by late 1975 Ridsdale had admitted to Bishop Mulkearns that he had offended against children and that Bishop Mulkearns knew that Ridsdale’s conduct was known to the police in Bendigo and it is likely he knew of the general talk in the community about Ridsdale.”

There were now two communities – Apollo Bay and Inglewood – where there was talk about Ridsdale sexually offending against children. 

In 1975, Ridsdale attended counselling with Father Peter Evans. 

“We are satisfied that Bishop Mulkearns did not take any notes of the 1975 complaint of child sexual abuse against Ridsdale or his subsequent treatment with Father Evans, the report states.

“We infer that he did so in order for there not to be a record of Ridsdale’s history of sexual abuse of children.”

Many years later, in an interview with CCI, Bishop Mulkearns said he only appointed Ridsdale after he ‘was given assurance that he was ready to be appointed again’. 

This is at odds with Ridsdale being appointed three days after the police visited Bishop Mulkearns.

Ridsdale was not given clearance from a psychologist or psychiatrist before being put back into ministry. 

It follows that the account Bishop Mulkearns gave to CCI was false and no doubt designed to protect him from criticism in relation to his protection of Ridsdale and to protect the reputation of the Church.

It follows that Bishop Mulkearns, knowing that Ridsdale had offended against children, knowing that his conduct was known to the police in Bendigo and, more likely than not, knowing of the general talk in the community about Ridsdale, placed Ridsdale in another parish situation. 

“It was inexcusably wrong for Bishop Mulkearns to have done so,” the report states.

“It was an extraordinary failure for Bishop Mulkearns to appoint Ridsdale parish priest, even temporarily, accepting Ridsdale’s assurance that he was ready to be appointed again. It showed complete disregard for the safety and welfare of children in the Parish of Bungaree.”

Ridsdale was appointed temporary parish priest of Edenhope just over two months after he was removed from Inglewood parish following a complaint of child sexual abuse, without Bishop Mulkearns having received any assurance from the psychiatrist he had been sent to that it was suitable for Ridsdale to be put back into ministry. 

“Returning Ridsdale to a parish without any restrictions or conditions, and without ongoing professional counselling, showed complete disregard for the safety and welfare of the children of Edenhope parish,” the Commission found. 

The Church parties acknowledged that it was inexcusably wrong for Bishop Mulkearns to have appointed Ridsdale to another parish after he became aware of Ridsdale’s offending at Inglewood. 

Over a year later, Ridsdale was given a permanent appointment at Edenhope as parish priest. 

The appointment was recorded at a meeting of the College of Consultors on 19 July 1977. 

The Church parties submitted that there is no evidence that, either before or at this meeting, any of the attendees other than Bishop Mulkearns knew of actual or suspected offending by Ridsdale. 

“We are satisfied that, by this time, the consultors who had attended previous meetings, including Father Madden and Father McInerney, had been told of Ridsdale’s sexual transgressions,” the report states. 

“It is inconceivable that these consultors did not know by this time, given the usual practice and the general knowledge in the community.” 

Ridsdale remained at Edenhope parish for three years, until September 1979. 

During that time, there was evidence of talk in the community and among clergy about Ridsdale’s conduct. 

In 1981, Father Torpy was studying in Rome.

In a letter to Bishop Mulkearns in January 1981, a year after Ridsdale had left Edenhope, he wrote: "Hope you haven’t run out of steam yet. Have heard a few whispers on the Edenhope situation. Very nasty but H. Nolan will stand no nonsense."

“We are satisfied that Mr Torpy knew of allegations against Ridsdale in 1981,” the Commission found.

The writing was on the wall

Gerald Ridsdale was born in 1934.

He was ordained a priest in the Diocese, by Bishop O’Collins, in 1961.

He held 16 different appointments over a period of 29 years as a priest.

His appointments were typically short, with an average of about 1.8 years per appointment, after which he was transferred to a new role or location. 

Ridsdale’s appointments were discussed at no less than 18 meetings of the College of Consultors. 

The frequency with which he was moved from appointment to appointment was unusual. 

By at least December 1992, Victoria Police were investigating Ridsdale in relation to child sexual offences. Ridsdale has been convicted of child sexual offences occurring in parishes including Ballarat East, Swan Hill, Warrnambool, Apollo Bay, Inglewood, Edenhope and Mortlake. ​

Warrnambool based priest knew about nudity at camp

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard Father Lawrence O’Toole, current parish priest at Our Lady Help of Christians in Warrnambool, was an assistant priest at Ballarat East in 1973. 

He knew about the annual trip to the lake. 

He was informed by parents that Brother Fitzgerald would take boys swimming and the boys would be in the nude. 

He thought the parents ‘were accepting of it’. 

Father O’Toole was shocked at this practice; however, he did not do anything about it.

He did not tell the parish priest or take it any further. 

The most likely reason for his shock was the ‘sexualised’ nature of that activity. 

Regardless of whether the parents were accepting of the activity, priests and clergy had a responsibility to ensure that they, and their fellow Brothers and fellow clergy, acted protectively towards children in their care.

It may not have been unreasonable for Father O’Toole to believe it was not for him to raise Brother Fitzgerald’s conduct with the provincial. 

However, it is troubling that nothing was done even though he was shocked by the conduct and believed that there was a sexual element to it, the report states.

Brother reports disturbing allegations

Brother BWX (pseudonym) worked in Christian Brothers schools until 1968. 

While Father Francis Madden was chaplain at a Christian Brothers College in Warrnambool in Victoria, between 1964 and 1968, he overheard a conversation among students in the vein of ‘be careful if Brother BWX offers to give you a massage’ or ‘don’t let Brother BWX get you behind the shelter shed’.

He told the principal of the college, Brother HL Williams, what he had overheard. 

He was concerned about the boys using that sort of language. 

He was clearly right to report to the principal of the school, the report states.

In the early 1970s at Ballarat, Father Brendan Davey, the chaplain at St Patrick’s College, mentioned to Father Madden that Brother BWX was a member of staff there. 

Father Madden told Father Davey what he had overheard the students at Warrnambool saying about Brother BWX several years earlier, in the mid-1960s. 

“There was an obvious sexual aspect to what was said by the boys and overheard by Father Madden,” the report states. 

“We accept that it did not occur to him that Brother BWX was actually engaging in some sort of sexual misconduct with boys. 

“However, if Father Madden believed it was entirely benign, it is unlikely that he would have reported it and unlikely that he would have recalled it some years later and told the chaplain. 

“We make no finding as to Father Madden’s actual knowledge.​”

Brother BWX accepted that in 1966 Brother Williams had spoken to him about an allegation and warned him that he should not ‘go one to one with boys or touch their genitals’. 

At the beginning of the following year, in January 1967, Brother BWX was transferred from Warrnambool to another teaching position at North Melbourne. 

From the timing, at least one of the reasons he was transferred from Warrnambool was that allegations had been made against him. 

It was inexcusably wrong for Brother BWX to have been appointed to another teaching position when allegations of his sexual misconduct with students were known to the Christian Brothers and they were sufficiently concerned to put in place restrictions on his access to children.

​Brother BWX was born in 1939 and entered the novitiate in January 1956. 

He has never been charged with a child sexual abuse offence. H

He was given the pseudonym ‘BWX’ so as not to prejudice then current criminal investigations about child sexual offences. ​

Mortlake residents spoke to the Bishop about inappropriate behaviour

A NUMBER of Mortlake residents complained to Bishop Brian Finnigan about Gerald Ridsdale’s behaviour in the early `80s.

Bishop Finnigan said he confronted Ridsdale when he learnt a number of people were “disturbed” by the priest’s actions.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found Bishop Finnigan’s evidence “highly unsatisfactory”.

The report states Bishop Finnigan sought to downplay the significance or implication of what the parents had told him, despite accepting their concern was that Ridsdale was “behaving inappropriately with their children”.

He said the complaints from the people who came to see him “didn’t mention child sexual abuse.”

The report states the Commission does not accept that Bishop Finnigan did not recognise the nature of the complaints.

REPORT RELEASED

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has released a scathing critique of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Ballarat’s response to abuse claims, describing the lack of action as a “catastrophic institutional failure of the Diocese”.

The report, which comes one day after documentation about the Melbourne Archdiocese was released, said “commissioners heard that there was a tendency by clergy in the Diocese to treat complaints or allegations of child sexual abuse dismissively and in favour of the priest who was the subject of the allegation”. 

The Commission was particularly scathing of the actions of former Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, saying “Bishop Mulkearns again was derelict in his duty in failing to take any effective action to have Ridsdale referred to police and to restrict Ridsdale's contact with children". 

In response to the specific case of Paul Levey, who lived with Ridsdale at the presbytery in Mortlake, the Commission described Bishop Mulkearns’ response as “appalling”. 

“The most likely explanation for the conduct of Bishop Mulkearns and other senior clergy in the Diocese was that they were trying to minimise the risk of scandal and protect the reputation of the Catholic Churh", the report said of Bishop Mulkearns’ response. 

Read the full report here